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A WGS Quarterly Publication

insight interview june 2008

Deborah Lee
Interview with Annie Fukushima

This Insight Interview with Deborah (Debbie) Lee includes perspectives on religion, spirituality and militarism, people of color perspectives, youth and the movement, and women's international organizing. Debbie says, "the personal is political is your whole life. It's not just oh this is your job... [This is] what we see in the women that come together in the network, no matter who they are, what they are... how [they] use your gifts in service of change."

Deborah Lee is an activist, educator and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ with particular interest in the intersection of social justice and faith. She has been active in issues relating to U.S. militarism in Asia and Central America, Asian American community issues, race and gender in the United States, youth leadership, and anti-globalization. She completed her undergraduate studies in Peace and Conflict Studies, and graduate work in theology. Currently she is the Program Director of PANA, the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific Asian North American Religion, a center of Pacific School of Religion. Lee is also the co-editor of the book, UnFaithing U.S. Colonialism (1999), commemorating the centennial of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, Guam, Hawai'i, Samoa, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Interview Insight: Debbie Lee
By Annie Fukushima

ANNIE FUKUSHIMA: What is militarism?

DEBBIE LEE: Militarism is solving conflict with fighting. It’s the use of power and might to get something that you want to solve conflict. And when you look at it like that, it’s so stark about how wrong it is cause what we teach our children it’s so differently. And then militarism is the whole system that supports that mindset; that this is the way that all conflict will be resolved. And it’s the standing armies, it’s the industries, it’s the businesses that support that… It has colonized our minds. Colonized our boys and our girls… I think that it has infested our whole society, our families that there is some kind of glory in letting your sons and daughters go to war.

FUKUSHIMA: How has it shaped your perception of the U.S. military?

LEE: So I’m part of the Chinese diaspora. My father is from China, Hong Kong and my mother is Chinese diaspora from Indonesia and then later came to the U.S. And, I think about the impact of global militarism on migration in my parent’s family and my family. If we look at the immigration from Mexico, when you look at how the U.S. took Mexico, then developed a whole economic relationship with Mexico. And then there’s NAFTA, and so many people forced to leave, I think that was the situation that happened in China also, in the late 1800s, with the Opium Wars forcing people to leave. I think that that is the first ways of how militarism affected my family. In terms of, we had to leave, because farmers couldn’t survive on their land. And I think that kind of awareness of how militarism disrupts peoples lives, basically civilian life.

The only person in my family, I think as a person of color, the only person in my family is my step-grandfather [A.K.A. Uncle Allen] was in the U.S. military. He grew up in Boston Chinatown. And he joined the military, he enlisted in WWII, because he said that he was young and there were no options for a young Chinese unless if he was going to continue to work in his dad’s laundry or work in a restaurant… Militarism, especially for communities of color in the U.S. has been something that has been offered as this option when there’s no other economic options in the labor market (for people of color). And I think it has given him certainly economic stability and my grandmother probably would have never married him if he didn’t have a military pension. And that step grandfather has been the one who has received every member of my family who has immigrated... He has been the one to orient everyone to American life. But uncle Allen has been a big part of our lives and you know, he credits the military to providing him with certain skills. And even though when he came back from the military, there were very few jobs that he could get… To me, this all has an embedded kind of relationship with military and working class people as well. And almost all families in America have some military history related history; that’s just how militarism seeps through our everyday life.

FUKUSHIMA: I know for the Japanese American community with the GIs bill, definitely led to the romanticizing of what the military could do for the migrant or migrant families. It was meant to propel them into economic stability, especially in Hawaii, I think that we saw a shift in politics in what I guess you could say, who was holding the center, and which communities [are holding that center]. I think that it’s interesting because you are talking about mainland U.S. history.

LEE: In Hawaii maybe they could make use of the GI bill because my step grandfather, Allen, could never use it. He came back and was supposed to get a whole mortgage and he could not, they would not give it to him because he was Chinese. Even around the Bay View Hunters Point Area, you know which is now predominantly African American, they would not sell to a Chinese. So a lot of Chinese couldn’t get it…

FUKUSHIMA: …We then still see Chinese exclusions.

LEE: I mean and the other thing about how the military is an option because you have no other opportunity in society, I was thinking about Japanese Americans: Here they are in WWII in a concentration camp, and is one of your only ways out was to join the military. It’s just so wrong. And that’s how it is for immigrants today. The only way, your path to citizenship, it’s the only viable path to citizenship…

FUKUSHIMA: …What brought you to the international network?

LEE: The women’s Network? … Being a child of immigrants I always had an international… I was actually interested in international politics and international life, you know? That was my first area of study, international area development issues. I think because I always felt that part of my family was always there, then I could be there. Thinking about poverty and war and the situation... And a lot of the things that [Pacific and Asian Center for Theology and Strategies] center had done since the 80s’ trying to support… transnational work around workers issues, fighting against the Korean dictatorship, and the anti-Marcos movement… Okinawa in ’95… A conference called “Land of Life” and it was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And at that conference they brought together survivors. Different survivors of World War II. And it was an incredible way to connect with us, from the Lolas, to the comfort women, the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima to the people in the Marshall Islands, to the Navajo. And my roommate was this Navajo woman whose family had worked in Uranium mining’s that went to go to build the atomic bomb, whose parents had died of lung cancer from working in the mines… So, that got me into Okinawa. You know, when you go to some place you feel some sense of responsibility to have the stories live on in some way. So that was in ’95, and in ’96 where there was the rape of that 12-year-old girl. And, a few of the women we had met at that Okinawa conference, it was a carving a part of the picture of them telling their stories. We hosted an event here in Berkeley, right across from campus and there were 200 people who came. And then I met Gwyn and Margo [Important founders of the WGS network] at that event…

FUKUSHIMA: So, what is the significance of centering women’s experience? Do you think women have a different responsibility to global politics or relationships?

LEE: Well, I think the field of international relations and global politics is so male dominated… So I think one of the contributions women make that work in this area I think there is a little practice of a different ethics. A different ethic in relation to the land, in relation to the children, a different relation to the lives and life sustaining efforts that people are trying to make in their own lives and communities… There’s like a model that is open to grassroots participation, it’s more narrative, more story. It’s more about people and their relationships.

FUKUSHIMA: Great. What is your most memorable memory of the network? I am sure there are many, and you can say a few if you can’t ground it in any one.

LEE: I have been part of the planning meetings… It was collaborative… it was beyond specific identities and divisions, but about looking at the specific issues. That year [2007] was really incredible and I really enjoyed the community nights in trying to connect those issues together.

I think another memory I have is not so much the big meetings, but in the early days just our small little house meetings. And I have to say, Gwyn and Margo they are the one’s who kept me in it… Even when I couldn’t be super involved. I couldn’t go to the international meetings because I had little kids and all the things with it. There’s was just such a real commitment to me… and maybe that is something to women’s organizing; it is about relationships and creating support for one another and what you do is just the icing on the cake. It gives us a chance to connect in this very disconnected society and world that tries to make you feel hopeless, feel despair. We actually feel, you know, connected…

FUKUSHIMA: … Can you speak about the role of religion and spirituality in a decolonial project? And the difference, if you want to talk more about the difference between spirituality and religion because I know there appears to be a conflation.

LEE: To me, spirituality is life. Spirituality is what makes you feel alive and what promotes life and liveliness in this world. And the sense of connection in life. Religion is the cultural expression of that deeper thing which connects us. Religion is the cultural expression so it’s like how culturally your people make sense of the world or the cosmos. And it’s the rituals that you do for to remind yourself of who you are as a person, what it means to be human to remind you of what your role is on this planet. Religion has been used in the colonial process. Certainly it’s a tool of conquest and tool of domination. And it has created enormous trauma. And severed people from their spirituality… People are very creative, so people have always been able to take religion… to take a message that has been used to dominate them and to use that as a message to liberate and free them. You look at how the African American slaves used the religion of the “master” to become a religion that would push and sustain them in their struggle for freedom. You look at the Philippines and Puerto Rico and how people took Catholicism and said “yes, God created us in his image, and that isn’t to be a subject, that isn’t to be a slave.” So they took, they could see in that religion what that deeper message was… And to me, spirituality and religion, that’s a really important part of people’s lives. It’s what gives them hope, it’s what gives them meaning in life, it’s what calls them to continue to wake up every morning to contribute in some way. So I think religion is really important, and to ignore that is a really big mistake. And, it has been important in my life. I was doing so much organizing and educating and I could see in the audiences, it was not for lack of knowledge, it was not for lack of information that they weren’t doing anything. They weren’t “rising up”… I could tell them all “this”, and I could site all these studies, and it wasn’t it. To me, it was this deeper spiritual thing, deeper spiritual aspects that would have to help people move and reconnect in ways we have been broken...

FUKUSHIMA: And I think too, when I thought of that question, I was thinking about the diversity that where the religious sort of alliances in the international network, it’s really diverse. And yet, in spite of the different belief systems that each of us have, there is a sense of still coming together. And, there was a sense of ritual being enacted especially at the international network’s last event, I think, the culmination of the dance… that sort of happened every night, almost. There was some sort of performance…

LEE: That touched deeply to the soul. I think that was kind of the ways of women doing things in organizing. The other thing, is that there’s the model of “getting people angry, this is so terrible, look at what the U.S. military is doing.” The ethos that we tried to create in all of that was like we wanted to lift up, we wanted to celebrate, we wanted to lift up what these women were doing to find out what sustains them so that we could be hopeful and sustained. To me, that’s a really different model, a really different vibe, that doesn’t usually exist. And, I think it helps to not get burned out … And fun! Who wants to go to something where you are being berated? Laughter

DL: You look at the commercials, they are trying to sell capitalism “Look how fun and great it is.” You can’t sell being part of change, you have to sell that that what is also fun, and life giving, and exciting, and makes you feel good.

FUKUSHIMA: What role do you think, you talked a little bit about youth already, but maybe if you can say a little bit more about the role of youth in the anti-militarism movement.

LEE: Are they involved?

FUKUSHIMA: That’s a good question right? Laughter

LEE: Are they involved? Wow… I feel that the youth are really used, and they are really used by the system. I mean to think that we send out kids who are nineteen and twenty. 18, 19, 20… To do such terrible things, to make such ethical, moral, on the spot decisions in such dangerous situations. What kind of ethical, moral training have we given them to deal with that, and to deal with the decisions they make after? I think that’s a huge, to be put in those kinds of situations. I think that they are really used. And it comes back to the education system. The education system is so unequal. Certainly people are cast into no opportunities, no prospects… I want a more comprehensive approach to our youth and militarism. We have to start looking at this whole big picture from the prison systems, the education system, the economics. What we really need a more holistic thing. Youth are really segmented off… Someone was saying, this is a quote, what is wrong in our society when adults see youth coming they cross over to the other side of the street. There is a big break between adults, children and youth and how we see our relationship to them, and our role. We are suffering from that relationship, and they [youth] can just be sent out to fight when there is that kind of a rupture. So I am sure there are youth involved, but not like in other countries. Sometimes when you look at other countries, children are being enslaved in… what’s that called?

FUKUSHIMA: Child Soldiers

LEE: That’s right, and I think that’s exactly what we do here. It’s more subtle, basically that is what we are doing. I remember when this story when we should the Ground Truth, and this guy was probably 15 and he just broke down in tears, he said “All my life I thought that was the honorable thing to do, to be a firefighter or a soldier… And what else, please tell me, what else can I do with my life?” And I thought, “what’s wrong with our society that were not saying, here is an example, here is what you could do, here’s what you can do, we want you and we need you.” We are not telling them that we need them, but we do need them in so many ways. I think the disvaluing of human life, the disvaluing of human labor is just exacerbated when you look at the youth. The contributions, it’s not valued, it’s feared…

FUKUSHIMA: yes. I think that one of the reasons that I also asked this question about the role of youth, is because I know that PANA does things around youth mobilizations, and maybe it’s not gearing them for an “anti-military” kind of direction, it’s definitely giving them some other options, which for me, is a site of possibility…

LEE: That’s true. I think our program tells people that you have potential, in religious terms, a “calling” to contribute to this world. To use your gifts, to use your story, to do something to improve the lives of others around you. So, I think in that sense, just the instilling the sense of human worth is so important and so basic. And you realize that people are not getting that. And when we talk to them about militarism, just the small part, it is striking to see how pervasive it is in their lives. Especially youth of color. They have never talked about militarism before, especially since they have family members, uncles, fathers, that have been in the military. It’s become equated with a source of pride. Usually the little pride that they can have. The only pride that they can have. They are not honored as people of color in this country unless if they are in them military; that’s one stripe that you can wear. And so it’s such a difficult topic to talk about in complex ways…

FUKUSHIMA: You have been talking a lot about people of color, so I was wondering if you could just say a little bit more about what the significance of race, ethnicity, or whichever one you want to go with because they are really two different terms, but the significance [of them] in a peace movement?

LEE: One of the things is that I think that it effects how we do things. I am interested in the pieces of how it has a difference in doing things differently, a more culturally grounded way of doing things. That’s what I really like about the international women’s network. I get to see these countries in their own culturally framework that are expressing their politics and working towards change in their own way… I have been trying to explore this question of … what is the culturally grounded Asian American way of doing political change? So that we don’t feel like, “oh, to be about change, you have to look like this.” Because the realities that we come from are more complex. And, it has to make sense to our communities … When I think about the Guam/Chamorro people were presenting and they showed their protest, somebody had asked in the audience, “do you have like big violent, revolutionary movements in Guam.” And she [the speaker] said, “No, we just have big families.” And I was like, wow, that’s the perfect answer. Laughter. “You know, we just have big families.” And in that family, you are going to have all kinds of opinions. And, in order to do change it has to make sense for our families. It has to move our communities. And she said, “When we do something, our families will be behind us, because that’s just the way our culture is.”

That to me, I feel like, I am looking for that kind of political expression. And I think that WGS is that kind of political expression. We do what feels rights, that fits, that is our life giving. I remember when we did the protest it was about, the Nicole Case, she was raped by the U.S. military and we did this performance in Union Square wearing the malong and just lying down… I think the peace movement is a particular practice, and if we were to have a larger movement it would allow for these multiple cultural expressions and create other ways of doing things. WGS and PANA incubate different ways of doing things in creating more communities that we can do together.

FUKUSHIMA: Great. I guess that gets at, you’re already talking about the silences. If you could say a little bit more about what are the silences that are pervasive in discussions on militarism… I guess you could say in the U.S. discourse because the international, that’s different.

LEE: Well I think in general the U.S. discourse on militarism, I think there tends to be a focus on the wars, the current wars. I think that is part of what the network is saying, look, we are in a permanent war mentality. And these 700 plus bases they are permanently have been there for over 100 years and I think that tends to get forgotten in the peace movement. It’s not just what’s going on now, but it’s all the places that sustain and support and train and training grounds for these kinds of war things… I think the other thing is the relation to immigration and the impact of war on civilians and how that relates to immigration. This young Cambodian women was telling me, and I haven’t been able to verify it, cause she was talking about the deportations which I know that part was right. But then she says, “Cambodians and Vietnamese are being deported because now we need to make way for the Iraqi refugees.”


LEE: You know and I thought, well there’s some sort of being pitted against each other. “So Iraqi’s are coming in and that’s why we are being deported.” I don’t think that’s true.

FUKUSHIMA: Yea… To see our own stereotypes, generalizations, and fears coming out since the post 9-11 kind of period. And I would say even earlier then that around the Muslim body. And you can see a “this is happening because of them”. So an Othering even within the Others.

LEE: And not the similarities, where the war in Vietnam created all these refugees here, and not seeing the parallels…

FUKUSHIMA: …Where do you imagine possibility lay? Where is the site of possibility for, I guess it’s very big, so where is the possibility for peace?

LEE: That’s hard. Laughter. Where is the possibility for peace… I think for us in the U.S. if we can start to unpack more and more militarism in our own lives. I think it’s just so the American way that it’s not even questioned. So if we can start unpacking and if we can start learning about the rest of the world and other ways of doing things. Other ways of having international relations. Other ways of supporting your populace. I think as Americans start advocating for that there is some possibility there… When I became a mother, as a feminist, I always thought I was going to have girls. Because you always say you are going to have girls, and you are going to raise her differently. And, of course, I have two boys. Laughter. So all the women in WGS have had boys. First it kind of threw me, but I think you know, we have to start in how we teach, it’s not just about teaching the girls, but it’s about teaching the boys too. And, being a boy isn’t just a certain way… I remember going to one of the Iraq anti-war 2002-2004 right when the UN was pulling out, and we did some signs. “Don’t fight.” “Don’t hit.” If we are not doing that at a national level, then why do we expect our kids to do the same? If the parents don’t sit down with children and try to teach them to resolve conflict in respectful ways, we can’t teach our kids not grab without grabbing it out of their hands. We are trying to teach our kids of having this practice of kindness, getting along and conflict resolution, and then they see our president going against that. What a contradiction that is. WE have to be able to explain and talk about the contradiction. And I remember I asked him, “How did you like the protest?” And he said, “It’s okay, but I thought we were going to see George Bush.” Laughter. Because we were like, “We are going to go and tell George Bush!” Laughter. Where was George Bush? Laughter. But where was he?

FUKUSHIMA: He wasn’t there.

LEE: Yeah, and how come he didn’t listen to us? So do they feel empowered? Or Disempowered by that? …And someone said, if they make a non-white a president, they will kill him… being on the mainland, somehow I feel that I know that I have that feeling too. This feeling of dread, disbelief, that it can’t really happen. What’s wrong with America that we don’t believe our democracy works? We don’t believe in possibility. That’s why the possibility question was hard for me… America has defeated our sense of possibility and possibility to change things… I know in me I still have to fight that feeling of being traumatized, you have been disappointed so many times, you have been crushed so many times that you can’t hope fully. So how do we really? Until, Americans of all races, of all classes, of all likes, can really believe that they can really make change, that they can effect the way our country works, that’s an important step to help the rest of the world we have to step up. That we can believe we can shape our country…

FUKUSHIMA: The last question, then I am going to do a quick activity with you, what does the “personal is political” mean to you?

LEE: I think there’s this Japanese song that says you can not put out a fire if you can not even put out a cigarette. Laughter. Why do you think you can put out the fire, if you can not even put out your cigarette. Laughter. So that to me is the personal is political. So we have to start with the things that are personal… that is our families, our relationships, our friendships, those who are closest to us. We have to practice non-violence, get more practice at that, as a human in our action level so that will transform, I believe, what we do at the macro level. I also believe the personal is political is the joy of doing this work, political, transformation work, it doesn’t matter exactly where you pay check is coming from your title, it’s a personal commitment to do that, it’s really rich… the personal is political is your whole life. It’s not just oh this is your job… this is really their vocation. Sometimes, I think in the U.S. everything is professionalized, even the activism is professionalized, the people trying to call forth. And what we see in the women that come together in the network, no matter who they are, what they are, how their gifts, how do you use your gifts in service of change?

FUKUSHIMA: Great! So this activity is the last thing. First thoughts.

POP CORN Words With Debbie Lee:
Militarism: Death
Guam: Island
Okinawa: Dancing
Hawaii: Complexity of racial groups
Korea: Peace Movement
Japan: WWII History
Philippines: Legacy of U.S. colonialism
Women: Life, birth, strong, colorful
Memory: Deep, layered, our roots, and defining who we are
Spam: Following the military chain around the world. We had a spam party here last year. [Other things that came up later was how family histories are linked with spam, layered meaning “upon the spam”.] laughter






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